Thorium might be the next ‘hottest’ fuel
The meltdown of the Fukushima reactor in March of 2011 was a tragedy by all accounts. Recent estimates point to the possibility that it could take 40 years to clean up the radioactive waste. While this event might have damaged the reputation of the nuclear industry around the world, some scientists were and are espousing the doctrine of a new nuclear energy source: thorium.
It is no secret that energy is a hot button topic. The rising world population, increasing urbanization, and reliance on all things electrical make power a critical necessity. Not only this, but with concerns about the environmental sustainability of coal, the need for another diversified form of power is apparent. This is where thorium comes in.
Named for the Norse god Thor, thorium was discovered in the 1820’s by Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory did extensive research into the use of thorium, but the project was stopped by President Richard Nixon because of the Cold War need for different nuclear by-products (to be used in bombs). Not much has happened in the way of industrial usages of thorium until January of this year, when China began a $350 million undertaking researching new forms of reactors. China, ever looking to the future, has realized its endurance cannot be dependent on coal, especially with the negative side effects of the pollution “dirty coal” has had in the world’s most populous country. Princeling Jiang Mianheng, who is directing the project, estimates that China itself has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for 20,000 years.
After China’s announcement, entities in Norway, Japan, Russia, India and Britain are all beginning to show interest in Thorium. In the US, McLean, Va. based Lightbridge Technology is working with a Russian team to develop a thorium reactor.
While it may be easy to simply say that thorium is a great source of energy, what necessarily makes it better than uranium? While detailed scientific reports and papers are available to give an in-depth explanation, simply put, it is cleaner, safer, is easier to handle, and more abundant. Thorium reserves are estimated at around 4.4 million tons and it co-occurs with other rare-earth metals (though currently it is often buried as a mining byproduct). Next, most of it is burned up in the fission process (unlike uranium) and it can aid in burning up the world’s current stockpiles of plutonium and other hazardous waste. Additionally, there is no chance for a Fukushima-esque meltdown. Basically, the reactor can be simply switched off.
Thorium may not be perfect, but it is very possibly a major facet of the future of energy production. Right now, China may be the “guinea-pig,” but if it works for them, America would be foolish not follow suit.